Sochi Olympics Alpine Skiing Men

Ted Ligety carved his place in Olympic history

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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — A couple years ago, they made a rules change in the giant slalom. Citing the interest of athlete safety, they made the skiers change to longer, straighter skis.

Those skis are way harder to turn. Ted Ligety, the American who had ruled the giant slalom, complained bitterly.

And then he figured out a way to ski on those new skis, lower and longer in the turns, that further separated himself from everyone else in the world. He could now win races by astonishing margins.

At Wednesday’s men’s super-G at Rosa Khutor, Ligety put on a clinic to win the first American Alpine skiing gold of these Olympics. Indeed, he won big. It was one of the great moments of the 2014 Games. Here, for the entire world to bear witness, was sheer excellence — the excellence the sport demands as well as the excellence the man demands of himself.

VIDEO: Watch Ted Ligety’s giant slalom run

It was, in a word, awesome.

It also marked a profound moment in U.S. ski history — past, present and future.

Bode Miller announced after the race that his knees are bothering him and he is done at these Olympics; he will not ski Saturday’s slalom. He said, however, he intends to finish out the season. Miller is 36. There can be no question that — whatever Miller’s future — Ligety, 29, is now positioned to be The Man on the U.S. Ski Team.

“He carries so much speed and just doesn’t really make mistakes. Those are the things that separate him,” Miller said when asked to describe Ligety’s GS skiing.

“Other guys carry speed for a couple turns. They struggle a little bit. He just carries it smooth, top to bottom. He consistently puts time on guys the whole way down. He’s not doing a miracle in one section. He just pulls time on top, pulls more time in the middle, pulls more time on the bottom. There’s no question who is the best GS skier right now.”

Ligety now has two Olympic gold medals. His first came in the combined in Torino in 2006. He and Andrea Mead Lawrence, who won the slalom and the GS in Oslo in 1952, are now the only two American skiers with two Olympic gold medals in Alpine.

VIDEO: Ligety’s road to giant slalom gold

Ligety is the first man in Olympic history — no matter the country — to have won gold in giant slalom and the combined. Not Hermann Maier, Toni Sailer, Jean-Claude Killy, Kjetil Andre Aamodt, Lasse Kjus, or anyone else you might name.

You can bet this first Olympic GS gold for an American male skier is a big deal for the U.S. Ski Team program — there are potential donors and board members who flew all the way here through this weekend, ignoring all the controversies, just to see Ligety and 18-year-old sensation Mikaela Shiffrin. Ligety held up his end of the deal. Shiffrin, the world slalom champ, finished fifth Tuesday in the women’s GS, not her best event. She goes Friday in the slalom.

If development doesn’t seem all that sexy, consider this: Ligety and a few others on the U.S. team have trained here, on this very hill, a total of two weeks over the past two years. One particular turn on the second run gave a number of the racers fits. The first time Ligety trained here, he took five runs. And, as he said, “I didn’t finish a single one of my five runs because I was trying to take all the speed off that. So I knew how big a jump that was and how critical that was to the course.“

The medal Wednesday also means the U.S. Alpine team has won four medals in Sochi. One more ties for the second-best performance ever (the 1984 team). The 2010 team won eight — far and away best-ever.

Another slice of history: it was precisely 30 years ago — Feb. 19, 1984 — that Phil Mahre won gold in the slalom in Sarajevo, brother Steve taking silver.

VIDEO: Ted Ligety, 1-on-1

Because of the 2006 gold, it wasn’t so much that Ligety came to Sochi with the burden of having to prove himself at an Olympics. Moreover, he has ruled giant slalom for seven seasons. Beyond which, at last year’s World Championships, he won three golds — in the GS, super-G and super-combined, the first man to win three world golds since Killy in 1968.

The expectation here, though, was simple: in the United States, people tend to pay attention to Alpine skiing in a big way once every four years.

Welcome back to the Olympics, Mr. Ligety.

“In some kind of way,” said Bill Marolt, the president and chief executive of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, Ligety “needed this gold medal here to confirm all that he has done.”

“It creates a lot of pressure, but on the other hand it creates a lot of opportunity. The thing neat about Ted,” Marolt said, “is that he has this unbelievable ability to focus and, in the moment, grab the whole prize. He just represents all that we believe in — get in unbelievable shape physically, work like hell and stay in the moment. It was awesome to be part of.”

Earlier at these Games, Ligety had a shot at a medal in the super-combined but uncharacteristically did not ski aggressively; he finished 12th. A few days later in the super-G, he took 14th.

WATCH: Ted Ligety peaking at right time in Sochi

“The combined was definitely a huge disappointment, mostly because I knew I could have skied a lot faster,” Ligety said, adding that in the super-G he skied “great” but simply made a mistake. “That’s frustrating but at least I knew I was skiing fast. I’ve known coming in here my GS was in a good spot. I’m happy to be able to ski the way I know how to ski.”

The women’s giant slalom Monday was messy — rain, snow, sleet, fog. Conditions Wednesday morning were perfect — bright, blue skies with the snow icy, just the way racers like it. It was exactly 32 degrees at race time, the snow exactly 32, too.

Ligety further had the decided advantage of going No. 7 Tuesday morning in Run 1, after his main rivals, France’s Alexis Pinturault and Austria’s Marcel Hirscher.

Pinturault went No. 1, finishing in 1:22.4; Hirscher No. 3, 1:22.47.

Ligety then put down a run of incredible aesthetic and athletic grace and power. A slow-motion camera would show his body perfectly in alignment with the mountain as he weaved through the gates.

The plan, he said, was to “really just nail a couple of the big rolls,” and be intelligent everywhere else in assessing risk.

“The hill,” he would say later, “is not so difficult skiing-wise. It’s difficult tactically. I was trying to be smart over those big tactical terrain changes and then push as hard as I could in the sections where I could take some risk and I knew I could push hard.”

RELATED: Rivals help Ted Ligety evolve as a racer

When he crossed, the scoreboard said 1:21.08.

He was 1.33 seconds ahead of the field. There were, literally, gasps and oohs and ahhs from seasoned watchers in the press room. In ski racing, 1.33 seconds might as well be a year.

By the time the field wound through the top 30, only Ondrej Bank of the Czech Republic was even within shouting distance— the sound of Bank’s skis telling the story of his slash-and-dash down the course from the No. 28 hole to within 93-hundredths of a second. Bank’s best-ever World Cup finish: a giant-slalom fifth in December, 2010.

Davide Simoncelli of Italy stood third, 1.27 seconds back. His last World Cup win? Eight years ago.

Germany’s Stefan Luitz actually had gotten to within 59-hundredths of a second but then straddled the final gate with his right ski. He was DQ’d. “Maybe,” Luitz said, “I let my head go.”

How good was Ligety in Run 1? He led every one of the four splits. Once more — that lead was 93-hundredths. As an exercise in math, 93-hundredths covered every guy in the field from third through 21st — Simoncelli, 1.27 behind, through American Tim Jitloff, 2.15 back.

RELATED: Model Olympian – Ted Ligety

Hirscher, leading the current World Cup GS standings, finished Run 1 in seventh, 1.39 behind. Pinturault, second in the season standings, ended Run 1 in sixth, 1.36 back.

Miller was never a factor. He finished Run 1 2.56 behind, Run 2.53, in 20th. He said his left knee in particular wasn’t feeling quite right; his precise word was “jankied.” Also, he and his tech team, after watching the women’s GS Tuesday, figured on soft snow, and then came out Wednesday to find conditions were instead excellent. After the first run, he said, “I knew after four turns, Jesus, I’m in trouble.”

Ligety, meanwhile, said between runs he no longer had “to take the mega-risk,” adding,  “It’s really important to still go as hard in the sections you can so you’re making up time in the normal turns and just be smart to carry speed through those really difficult tactical sections.”

He also said, for emphasis, “You can’t let up in ski racing. Ski racing is the kind of thing where you can blow leads really quickly. And nothing is truly safe.”

He did not let up. He almost got caught on a right-footed turn about a third of the way down Run 2 but saved himself from what would have been a catastrophic fall and, again, because he knew the hill, ran hard but intelligently, giving back time with only the 14th-fastest in Run 2.

RELATED: Ted Ligety’s extraordinary 2013 season

Hirscher would finish fourth, just out of the medals; Pinturault would get third. Another French skier, Steve Missillier, would get second.

The final difference Wednesday between first and second? A whopping 48-hundredths of a second. The slo-mo cameras, again, were so revealing — Ligety’s skis, in a beautiful physics experiment, gliding along at a 90-degree angle to the slopes.

“Today,” Ligety said, “was awesome. There’s really no other way to put it.”

Katie Ledecky beaten by Simone Manuel, still sets two personal bests in 25 minutes

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 09:  Gold medalist Katie Ledecky of the United States poses on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Women's 200m Freestyle Final on Day 4 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on August 9, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)
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The legend of Katie Ledecky grows, even with a defeat.

In one of the greatest short-course-yards doubles in history, Ledecky broke the American record in the 400-yard individual medley and then lowered her personal best in the 200-yard free by a half-second in a 25-minute span at the Pac-12 Championships on Friday.

Ledecky won the Pac-12 title in the 400-yard IM by chopping three seconds off her personal best, clocking 3:57.68 in Federal Way, Wash.

About 25 minutes later, the Stanford freshman nearly came back to beat co-Olympic 100m free champion Simone Manuel in the 200-yard free final. Manuel had to cut .58 off her 200-yard free personal best to edge Ledecky by .13. Full results are here.

Manuel led by .99 after the first 50 yards, but Ledecky closed 1.2 seconds faster than Manuel in the final 50 yards. It marked Ledecky’s second defeat in a freestyle final longer than 100 meters since Jan. 18, 2014. Manuel also beat Ledecky in a 200-yard free in November.

Still, Ledecky chopped .54 off her 200-yard free personal best, touching the wall in 1:40.50.

Their anticipated rematch in the NCAA Championships in three weeks should be the event of that meet.

But the 400 IM may be more intriguing come the summer. Ledecky’s last 100 yards of freestyle in Friday’s final were 4.06 seconds faster than runner-up Ella Eastin.

The NCAA 400 IM is in a 25-yard pool. Internationally, the 400 IM is in a 50-meter pool.

Ledecky has never raced the 400m IM at a major international meet and scratched out of the event on the eve of the Olympic Trials eight months ago. She ranked fifth in the U.S. in the event in 2016 but never raced it fully tapered.

Her time on Friday was faster than the 400-yard IM personal best of Maya DiRado, who took Olympic 400m IM silver in Rio and then retired.

Ledecky could conceivably try and race the 400m IM this summer. At nationals in June, the 400m IM final is on a night where Ledecky would have no other finals. At worlds in July, the 400m IM comes on the final day of the meet (as opposed to the first day at the Olympics), also on a night where Ledecky would have no other individual events.

Earlier at Pac-12s, Ledecky lowered her American record in the 500-yard free by 1.31 seconds on Thursday, swimming faster than Ryan Lochte‘s personal best at the same age.

The Pac-12 Championships conclude Saturday.

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Michael Phelps ‘would probably do’ another Olympics if not for injury risk

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Michael Phelps said he would probably swim another Olympic cycle if it wasn’t for the possibility of injury, particularly with his shoulders.

“If you could guarantee me that I would never get injured in four years, and I would never have any problems with my shoulders or anything like that in four years, I’d probably do it again because I had more fun this time around,” Phelps said in a social media video Friday. “But I don’t want to risk that and not be able to spend time with Booms [son Boomer] when he grows up and watch him and be a part of every single part of his life when he gets older and older. So I think that’s something, for me, that I will never put my body through. I won’t take that chance. I think my body is way more important and my family is way more important than going another four years to swim in one more Olympics.”

Phelps’ right shoulder was a particular issue in his comeback for the Rio Olympics. He received two cortisone shots in the months before the Games, leading coach Bob Bowman to say that Phelps was “75 percent” of what he was at the 2008 Beijing Games, according to Sports Illustrated.

(Phelps has said he didn’t compete at 100 percent in Beijing, given an October 2007 broken wrist that interrupted training.)

Phelps reiterated, repeatedly as usual, during the 70-minute video that he would not return to competitive swimming. He still swims recreationally “for peace of mind” and “meditation.”

What about retirement saddens him?

“Not having the chance to represent my country anymore is something bums me out,” Phelps said, particularly hearing the national anthem atop the medal stand.

Phelps has plenty to keep him busy. The most pressing is testifying at a congressional hearing looking at improving the flawed anti-doping system in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

“I have a lot to say,” Phelps said. “To have that opportunity to speak out about my true feelings. I’ve never really, truly been able to do it.”

He began outlining those words Friday and said he had until Sunday to finish a page or a page and a half to present to the subcommittee.

“There are too many people who are cheating, that’s the easiest way to say it,” Phelps said. “Look what happened at the [Rio] Olympics, all the athletes that tested positive that were still allowed to compete. I think that’s wrong, and I think it’s unfair. I think that’s something that needs to clean.”

In Rio, Phelps praised teammate Lilly King‘s criticisms of athletes competing who had previously served doping punishments (such as King’s breaststroke rival, Russian Yuliya Yefimova). Phelps doubts he has ever competed in a clean race.

“I think you’re going to probably see a lot of people speaking out more,” Phelps said in Rio, according to The Associated Press. “I think [King] is right, I think something needs to be done. It’s kind of sad today in sports in general, not just in swimming, there are people who are testing positive who are allowed back in the sport and multiple times. It kind of breaks what sport is meant to be and that’s what pisses me off.”

Phelps said Friday that he hopes to help “clean the sports up so we can get back to why we play sports.”

“I don’t think any athlete should ever have that feeling that somebody else is at an advantage of using a performance-enhancing drug to help them,” he said. “I had these massive dreams and goals of things I wanted to accomplish and achieve, and never were they because I thought I could take an easy way by cheating. I basically just worked as hard as I could and made sure that my body was as prepared as I could possibly make it for every single meet. So I was able to accomplish the goals and dreams that I had. That’s something that I’m going to Congress to talk about.”

Phelps also added in Friday’s video that he hopes another swimmer will come along and break his records, that he was recently knocked out of a poker tournament by his wife and he will be in Budapest for the world championships in July.

Just not as a competitor.

MORE: Ledecky’s latest American record faster than Ryan Lochte at same age